In Heather E. McGowan’s must-read LinkedIn column “Preparing Students to Lose Their Job,” she calls for a transformation of the mission of education — from one that prepares people for a job to one that prepares people for continuous job loss.
Largely because of machines increasingly doing the work now done by humans, we are now in an economy where losing a job will almost certainly be routine. McGowan writes:
“As machine intelligence advances, humans will offload work to machines, and then adapt, re-skill, and redeploy to new, uniquely human work. That process of adaptation requires a foundation in learning agility and a mindset that prepares them for change. You might think of it this way: Mindsets are like operating systems and skill sets are applications. Higher education and workforce development have operated like application development; skills are defined in curriculum and applied to the student. This approach is reaching its useful end. Just like an old computer becomes obsolete, so will this application transfer process. Instead, schools need to focus on providing students with an operating system upgrade, developing fundamental abilities to acquire and shed rapidly changing skills requirements (a metaphoric app update). This foundation instills the ability and agency to continuously learn and adapt. This is a big shift in how we think about preparing a workforce.
“The right mindset provides a safe harbor in a sea of disruption. It enables graduates to make sense of shifting context and to recast their story so that they can march back to relevance. This continuous reinvention will dominate the future of work, and developing empathy for yourself and the grit to manage your internal critic will separate those who are successful in the future with those who struggle.”
McGowan’s framework is consistent with Google’s findings on the characteristics of its most successful current employees. The Washington Post reports: “The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.”
Gov. Rick Snyder in a Bridge Magazine guest commentary entitled “The revolution has started. Now Michigan needs to lead it.” lays out his analysis that underpins his “Marshall Plan for talent.” His description of future work is quite similar to McGowan’s. Lots of occupations being destroyed largely by machine learning. And lots of new jobs that we can’t imagine today. So, workers will need to be constantly learning new skills to stay employed.
What is dramatically different between the governor and McGowan is the prescription: What kind of education do we need to prepare for a future of constant occupation shifts? Using McGowan’s framing, Snyder emphasizes the apps (job-specific skill training), over the operating system (broad adaptability skills).
The governor writes:
“First, learning will move to a competency-based model where completion and success will be measured by demonstrated achievements of particular skills. … Degrees will mean less in the future since employers will hire students once they achieve the appropriate certificates and competencies. … A system of collecting competencies and accompanying certificates will provide more direct paths into exciting employment opportunities. Employers want to find good people who can walk into a position and get right to work.”
So rather than pursuing a college degree or apparently a college prep curriculum in high school, the governor envisions an education characterized by CTE in high school and postsecondary students enrolled in relatively short-term certificate programs to build job-specific skills for today’s job. And then repeat the process over and over again of earning job-specific skills in certificate programs whenever one loses a job.
The governor’s approach is similar to the one Google followed for years and has discarded based on an assessment of its most successful employees. Google started by basically only hiring those with STEM degrees — its version of occupation-specific skills. Not now!
As the Washington Post continues, Google “… After bringing in anthropologists and ethnographers to dive even deeper into the data, the company enlarged its previous hiring practices to include humanities majors, artists, and even the MBAs that, initially, Brin and Page viewed with disdain.”
In the governor’s vision, the humanities and the arts are a waste of time and money. So more broadly are the liberal arts in high school and college. They don’t build the occupation-specific skills that he believes employers are looking for today.
Turns out that would not be good for employers like Google. Or, more importantly, for Michigan’s children who now, more than ever, need an education that first and foremost builds broad, rigorous nonoccupation skills so they can navigate an economy where occupation-specific skills have a shorter and shorter half-life.
Lou Glazer is president of Michigan Future Inc.